I had borrowed a book from the library, With Magic in My Eyes - West Country Literary Landscapes by Anthony Gibson (yes, of course I have now had to buy a copy). The author known locally for many years as the voice of the National Farmer's Union here in the Shire, but also, as I was to discover with this book, a keen historian and an extremely engaging writer. I was browsing through the pages on the usual suspects, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daphne du Maurier when I came across a mention of Captain Hunter.
Captain Nigel Duncan Ratcliffe Hunter, born in 1894, lived in neighbouring Okehampton, at Glenholme in Station Road (I must find it next time we are at the dentist's, also in Station Road) and, according to his diary, had walked up on Dartmoor, around Widgery Cross with his dog Gyp on 30 June 1915. He was on leave from the Front having been wounded once already, and had recently been moved to Ypres, but he was home for a week or so and clearly made use of those long summer evenings out on the moor. Captain Hunter returned to France and would return home on leave several times before he was eventually killed in action at Biefvillers on Easter Monday 1918.
What a sad coincidence that poet Edward Thomas had been killed on Easter Monday 1917.
Of even greater interest was mention of the presence of a commemorative plaque to Captain Hunter, with one of his poems, and sited at Black Rock on Dartmoor, overlooking a waterfall and pool on the River Lyd, beneath Brat Tor with the very distant Widgery Cross at its summit...
Dartmoor is only a swift twenty minute drive from our door so off we trotted though minus the dogs because it had been raining heavily and who could know what the River Lyd might be doing. In fact they would have coped, but sometimes a dog-free walk is quite relaxing...nothing to worry about, and we can just look and walk, and talk and listen.
How good to find that countless others had been there before us with poppies and that even at a place as isolated as this we will never forget...
and the plaque with the poem that Captain Hunter wrote after that midsummer walk...
Here is the poem in full, taken from this excellent local website which also holds a transcript of Captain Hunter's diaries...
I stood at the gate awhile in thought
And gazed out into the night
The tors stood black, but their peaks just caught
A flickering gleam of light.
For the night was clear; the stars shone bright,
And silence reigned o'er the moor.
And long I looked through the haze of night
At the cross on Widgery Tor.
Then cried I in my heart "Farewell,
Oh brooding moor, thou land of dreams
The wind-swept tor, the sheltered dell,
The gurgling brook, the rushing stream.
I loved to roam over all and breathe
The magic air, over laden with
The scent of heathers, gorse and bracken.
Of sunny rock grown grey with lichen,
Of bog that hides beneath a sheet
Of bright green moss or dark black peat.
Farewell, oh land that I must leave –
Mysterious land whose brooding face
In rocky tor and wooded cleave
Yet bears of forms men the trace;
Whose secret I would fain explore.
Yet must I hence. Perchance no more
Shall I return to linger by the rushing fall,
the dark still pool,
The stream which falls from rock so high
To depths so dark, so clear and cool.
Farewell, oh land I love – Goodbye"
Are we not like this moorland stream
Springing none knows where from
Tinkling, bubbling, flashing a gleam
Back at the sun – ere long
Gloomy and dull, under a cloud,
Then rushing onwards again:
Dashing at rocks with anger loud,
Roaring and foaming in vain,
Wandering thus for many a mile,
Twisting and turning away for a while.
Then of a sudden 'tis over the fall –
And the dark still pool is the end of all.
- - - - - -
Is it? I thought, as I turned away,
And I turned again to the silent moor.
Is it? I said, and my heart said "Nay!"
As I gazed at the cross on Widgery Tor.
N D R Hunter, 2 July 1915
Anthony Gibson suggests that Captain Hunter's poem , whilst not the 'greatest poem to have been produced by the First World War,' is, in its way, 'as moving as anything that Brookes, Graves or Sassoon ever wrote.' He argues that what makes it so poignant is the contrast between this beautiful and timeless place, and the horrors of the trenches to which he was returning, also suggesting the aptness of that metaphor about the rushing river and the life of the soldier at war...
We sat and looked across at the view for ages, listening to the water, and having walked up the River Lyd to Black Rock we walked back across the moor with the words of the poem resonating, it wasn't hard to imagine the wrench that leaving home must have been for Captain Hunter, and for so many others.
German Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff's report of the March 1918 spring offensive at the Front reveals this action...
'In continuation of the great battle in France our troops on March 25th achieved fresh successes. English divisions brought up from Flanders and Italy with the French threw themselves against our troops in desperate attacks. They were defeated.
The armies of General Otto von Below and General von der Marwitz have finally maintained themselves in Ervillers after a hot and fluctuating battle, and in their advance against Achiet-le-Grand, captured the villages of Bihucourt, Biefvillers and Grevillers.'
Imagine Captain Hunter, just twenty-three, many miles from this beloved place, and in the midst of that 'fluctuating battle' at Biefvillers on that very day. A letter to his father from a fellow soldier after the Captain's death confirms the chaos caused by the German advance...
Dear Mr. Hunter,
I was very pleased to have your letter of 23rd and shall be only too glad to help you by giving you all the particulars I can regarding the death of your son, Capt. Hunter. As Maj. Moore has told you, I was an eyewitness to the sad accident which occurred on the morning of March 25th just behind the village of Biefvilliers, 1 mile NW of Bapaume. We were, as perhaps you know, then holding the line with the infantry, but owing to the retirement we left our trenches and for a time lined a railway embankment facing the village. The enemy advancing slowly entered the village and a few of them with a machine gun managed to get into some tin huts about 200 yards away. Capt Hunter all the time had been going backwards and forwards among his men giving them help and encouragement regardless of all danger...
Captain Hunter was seriously wounded at Biefvillers just as his company was ordered to retreat from their trench, forcing his comrades to leave him behind alive, but maybe only just. I tell myself he might have thought about this place, perhaps imagined himself sitting there. His body eventually seems to have been identified from the buttons on his uniform, and his grave can be found at the Beaulencourt war cemetery near Calais.
The local Devon website has some incredibly moving letters written to Captain Hunter's family by those comrades and I never cease to be amazed, on reading these, how much effort went into ensuring that lives were remembered and honoured for the comfort of those families back home. Fellow soldiers would be sure to write and share recollections about the men, often giving those all important details about final moments, eye-witness accounts, and sharing the respect for friendships that meant so much.
As we walked back up the hill behind Black Rock something red caught my eye on the ground...
Just the one but it has been a tremendous autumn for fungi, and as I was taking a picture (and we think it was a Crimson Waxcap; likes old, mossy grassland says the book and is 'at home on blasted moors'...any fungi experts out there?) it was Bookhound who said it...
'That could be a poppy couldn't it.'